― 265 ―

Chapter XXXVI

YES, these eight lengthening golden spring days swept on with cruel swiftness. And yet they held so much. The hours in which the heart is most deeply touched have something of the quality of eternity. They stretch backward and forward, allying themselves with all that is deepest and most enduring in human experience. Stella's was one of those complex, yet essentially feminine, natures which can only be gradually kindled with love. But when it comes to full being it is a passion which transforms all life. In place of discord there is harmony that before lay mute and unsuspected, like Hassan's gold covered over by common wood. The friendship which had ripened into the perfect blossom of love had been a very real one. Social intercourse is for the most part a pitifully shabby concern, in which the ashes of mere existence smother aspiration, the quick play of fancy, and the sympathetic flow of thoughts that range beyond merely egotistical aims; an affair in which men and women largely bear themselves as though they were automata moved only by the wheels of custom, taking thought mainly for the things that perish with the using. But fellowship with the kind of vitality which wakens deeper chords of thought and feeling is as the salt of life. There were moments at first in which Stella could have found it in her heart to be sorry that her friend had ‘degenerated into a lover.’ But if he had not, how unhappy she would have been! And how much she would have lost! Even the old faith she had given up seemed in some way gradually flowing back. When she prayed she no longer lost herself in weary conjectures as to its futility, doubting that her weak pitiful words could reach the great Omniscience, whose thought of order was the fixed law of all the starry hosts, doubting and wondering, till she seemed to be obliterated in a chaotic universe where nothing seemed certain but uncertainty.

And these long beautiful days passed without any of the jar and fuss and congratulation that would have robbed them of their serenity if the sweet fiction of mere friendship had been abandoned. ‘Please tell us about one of your hospital people,’ Stella would say, as she often said before

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in the presence of her brothers, or their wives. And she would sit sewing and listening, hardly raising her eyes. There were so many people she had learned to know in this way—the old Scotch charwoman who never read fiction because, she said, it was mostly taken up by things that did not signify for this life or that which is to come; the little lame boy who told the sister of charity he did not believe God heard people about legs; the costermonger who had been run over, and whose wife candidly explained that the Lord had made him ‘naterally so silly,’ one could not tell oftentimes whether he was drunk or sober. And when they were alone after one of these episodes had been talked over, Stella would say with unaltered demureness, ‘Dr. Langdale, do not go into partnership with your cousin in the West-End.’

‘Why not, Miss Stella?’ he would say with responding gravity.

‘Because you like the poor so much, and’—dropping her voice with a quick change of manner—‘we shall have enough money. And medicine has the trick of turning into a trade when it makes a big income.’

The ‘we’ had a magical sound to Langdale. Then sometimes they would talk of the work on which he had been engaged. At first he persisted he would tell her nothing about it till his return.

‘You have woven so many brilliant fancies about it, St. Charity, and the reality is such homespun stuff.’

Then she found he had been engaged on a dual task—one a treatise on some aspects of hypnotism, the other on the conditions of factory labour. On this she expounded a brilliant plan by which they might be unified, and so produce a novel with a solid realistic background, relieved by incidents of ideal romance, in which ‘suggestion’ should play the part of the genii.

‘Never were so many plots thrown away on a material, semi-Teutonic mind before,’ laughed Langdale.

Before these charmed days were over he could not forbear confiding to Hector Courtland that his purpose in returning so speedily to Australia was to visit Fairacre, on which Courtland heartily wished him good luck, and prophesied that he had a good show, but said not a word to Stella.

He told his wife, however, and she was delighted, but a little provoked at what she thought was some sort of caprice

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on Stella's part. She assumed that Langdale had put his fortune to the touch, and that the girl was too wayward or too proud—too much in love with her dearly cherished liberty—to be at once entirely guided by her heart.

‘She will be sorry when he is gone, and it serves her right,’ she said, a little vindictively.

‘Oh, Stella may as well have a good long think over it; she is just the sort of girl that might be happier single all her life,’ returned her brother meditatively. He fully adopted his wife's opinion, without, however, ascribing his sister's supposed action to caprice.

‘Oh, you think Stella means all those wicked little speeches she makes about marriage?’ said the wife.

‘Well, she means some of them, or they would not occur to her,’ returned Hector, with a touch of that fine discrimination which often characterizes reticent natures.

Mrs. Courtland's resentment was not of a serious nature, and, indeed, chiefly took the form of contriving to give the friends that solitude à deux which so often leads to a change of programme, and even of life. Thus, on the afternoon of the day preceding Stella's departure, the two, after strolling for some little time with Mrs. Courtland and Mrs. Claude among the rose-trees by the Oolloolloo, found themselves left alone, heartlessly deserted by their companions. It was the fourteenth of September. The season was dry and warm, and already the time of roses had begun at Lullaboolagana. Some were out very early, some were half open, some just in bud, but all of them were very lovely. The white and pale cream Banksias were out in clustering festoons against walls and espaliers; there were tall standard rose-trees of Fortune's yellow, cloth of gold, white and pink moss, the Safrano and the generous old cabbage— all were loaded with opening roses. The Ophiric, with its shining, unserrated leaves and roses of pale flame, the delicate yellow of the Narcisse, the camellia-like pure pink of the Princesse de Hazel, were among those that were opening earlier. The Solfataro, too, with its large, greenish-white buds, pale, wax-yellow when they first unclose, but later white as the breast of a sea-gull; La Brillante, with its fiery, coal-like buds; the Gloire de Dijon, dark-red in early infancy—all were slipping their sheaths and coyly uncurling their outer petals. Dry as the season

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might be, the roses never lacked for water in the Lullaboolagana Home Field. They were its great glory—the joy of its mistress and the pride of Dunstan's heart. There were stations not twenty miles away in which roses paled and dwindled like rare exotics under an inclement sky. But here on the banks of the little Oolloolloo, and all within the spacious field, they bloomed early and late.

‘How do you manage it, Dunstan?’ visitors used to say in wondering admiration; and the old man, who was careful always to conceal his pride, would reply:

‘Oh, it's the sile as does it—the sile and the creek and the underground tank and the tubing. You see, if I say to the mistress, “I wants this or that—or the t'other must be done,” why, there 'tis, you know. 'Course, I don't say that I'm a born jackass, and don't know that one rose wants to be treated one way and another quite contrairy.’

Gardening was a topic on which Dunstan was never unwilling to enlarge when Stella spoke to him as he worked in the Home Field. He did so on this afternoon, when she stood lost in admiration of a young Murray wattle, whose great golden racemes, drooping one over the other, all the folds of the wide woolly tufts fully open, formed a sight of exceeding joy.

‘Yes, 'tis purty fair,’ he said, giving it a sidelong look; ‘and yet, if I hadn't a-pruned it a bit last season and given it more water, 'twould have give up the ghost. A man may put as much work inter ground as would make trees and flowers spring up like shiverin grass, and he may get naught but barrenness, if so be his work isn't what it should be. 'Tis for all the world like a man going out shootin’, Miss Stelly. He may fire away till he's black in the face, and yet not bring home a crow's feather—like Bill Wilton, who's so fond of carryin' a gun—why, the Lord only knows, if it's not to show how much powder and shot may be wasted, and no harm to any creature with a wing, though I've known him to graze the tail-end of a bullock pretty bad. 'twas after that I was out with him once at Swamp Desolation, and he kep’ on blazing away in such a permiscous way, I said to him at larst, sez I, “Look here, Bill, if you're to go on firing like that, I must go into the swamp and sit down among the wild ducks; ’tis the only spot where I'll be sure of a whole skin.” ’

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Stella, who had stayed behind her companions to talk to Dunstan, was laughing merrily over this incisive illustration, when Langdale came back alone; and then the two wandered by the Oolloolloo, whose silvery whispering was growing fainter day by day.

‘Teach me before we part, ever belovedest, how I am to live so long without seeing you or hearing you laugh!’ said Langdale, as they stood to watch the ripple of the wind among the tender leaflets of a beech-tree. ‘Don't sigh, Stella. See what a perfect love-day has been sent us to-day by——’

‘Heaven—say Heaven, not Nature, Anselm. A little while ago I kept wondering what they could grow in heaven lovelier than a Murray wattle and rose-buds. And now look up there, where tiny flakes of cloud leaflets seem to be floating. They are really young angels, who are waiting for an excuse to come down.’

‘Do they despair of seeing people as happy up there as here? But tell them, Liebe—for they will hear your slightest whisper—if they want to see perfect happiness, to come all the way down next spring. Do you remember what brave old Homer puts in the mouth of Ulysses when he wishes that Nausicaa may be happily married?— “Nothing is better or more beautiful than when a man and a woman inhabit a house being one in heart.” ’

‘We must not have too many possessions, Anselm. People get so fearfully stupid—so swallowed up in furniture. It would be adorable to start life like Hassan the camel-driver, with a cruse of water and a plume of curled feathers.’

‘You often gibe, Liebstes Herz, at the commonplace, as though it were a penal settlement; but I confess I have often seen a day-labourer return to his home at night with feelings akin to envy.’

‘Dear darling, you have often been lonely, and I wasn't there to comfort you. But after this——’

‘Tell me, Stella, when I return home will you hasten to meet me, walking buoyantly on the fore-part of your feet like a figure in antique sculpture, as you walked among the rose-trees just now? Come and sit in this charming little summer-house—all one mass of jasmine and passion-flowers! Why, Stella, my darling—good God, you are crying!’

‘Anselm, how foolish of you to be alarmed because I shed

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a few tears! Did you think I never, never cried? I believe Cuthbert is quite pleased when he sees me reduced to tears. Not that he has witnessed me often in that plight. You see, we were so much together, and, as boys do not cry, I got quite out of the habit.’

‘But, my child, all this does not explain why you weep now. Herzblättchen, I cannot bear to see you anything but gay—or smilingly serious.’

‘It is because we are too happy, Anselm. All day it comes over me afresh every now and then like a great wave of incredible gladness. Sometimes I cannot sleep, thinking it is all too like a fairy-tale. The first thing in the morning, before I open my eyes, my heart begins to beat wildly for joy—every bird that sings has a lilt in its song to which I could dance; and then in the middle of it all comes a sudden shiver of fear. Ah, there are such frightful accidents—such catastrophes in life! I think of my old friend Stanhope cut off in a few days! It all came up so vividly last night.’

‘And the tears are in your eyes still, you fearless, fun-loving little Australian, with strong roots of the Keltic melancholy and superstition lying deep under all. Get a “pâquerette,” and pluck the leaves to see how I worship you. Daisy petals are truer than dreams.’

He drew her close within his arms. Here she was safe. Here the billows of life's bitter waters could not reach or affright her. The jasmine summer-house was over-arched by a tall white poplar, whose young leaves with fair silver lining quivered on the slender stalks with as swift a motion as on the day that the old Greek poet compared the maidens to them who spun late and early in the household of King Alcinous. Through the roof of leaves and blossoms overhead, and the poplar limbs with their mist of tender leaves, the blue crystalline dome of the sky could be seen, stretching above all like a great benign smile. How peaceful it all was! How much more reasonable to believe the waking assurances of earth and sky than the vague presentiments of a sleeping girl!

‘O gentle wind, that bloweth south,
From where my love repaireth,
Convey a kiss from his dear mouth,
And tell me how he fareth.’

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She chanted the words with the old glad light in her eyes, and laid solemn charges on him to turn towards Australia night and morning and waft her greetings.

They did not say farewell that evening. Hector Courtland was to accompany his sister part of the way to Melbourne, and was to take her by way of the Peeloo Plain, on the borders of which his friend Mr. Dene lived, and Langdale proposed to pay a long-promised visit at the same time. But many farewells had to be spoken, nevertheless, and do what she would, the feeling lay heavy at Stella's heart that in leaving Lullaboolagana, the dearest, tenderest chapter in the book of her history was over. Here life's dearest mount of vision had been scaled, its sweetest idyll had been told.

Poor old Mick wept effusively when she bade him good-bye; Dunstan made it very clear that it was her duty to come back to Lullaboolagana early next spring, if not sooner.

‘Why, Miss Stelly, the place was made for you, I may say; and what will become of the vagabonds that get their legs broke, I dunno. The crow has took to no one but yourself, and that poor female as went away with her brother last week whole and well, and the three horses a kickin' up their legs as if they never knew what it was to be skelingtons; and even that blasphemin' cockie had forgotten some of his worst curseses——’

Dunstan lost himself in enumerating the caravan procession that had so deeply impressed him.

The next afternoon Stella and her brother reached Peeloo Station, where they were to stay the night. Langdale came near sundown, after paying some professional visits for Dr. Morrison by the way. There was but a meagre garden at this station, though it was a wealthy one, like most in the district. The house, too, had a curiously makeshift appearance. The fact was that the family from year to year proposed residing in the vicinity of Melbourne. Near sunset the host proposed an evening ride to all who cared to go over the great Peeloo Plain, which stretched for over sixty miles westward. There was an artesian well ten miles off, on the plain of weeping myalls, he wished to show Courtland.

‘Whom the gods love ride across a great Australian plain in the evening,’ said Stella; and Langdale, of course, was instantly converted to the same opinion. So the four set

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off westward, when the sun was low on the horizon. There were heat clouds piled up in an unmoving bank, through which the sun burned, as it sank, like a smouldering fire that the wind has fanned till the coals kindle into red heat and the flames break out, eating their way through the fuel. For a moment before setting the sun stood all undimmed on the level horizon like a great fiery ball, and then dropped suddenly out of sight, leaving a deep soft glow which reached high up in the heavens, and so remained for hours. This beautiful, unusual appearance was more vivid that evening than it had ever been before.

The riders followed no road, but took their way across the plain, still clothed with the luxuriant winter grass, which here and there was beginning to be touched with the heat languor that a few weeks later would turn the verdure into sapless flax. But as yet the herbage was so close and rich that the hoof-beats of the horses scarcely awoke an echo. The few sounds that were borne with startling distinctness through the sonorous air died away. The shrill scream of a black cockatoo in the depths of a weeping myall, the twitter of a little emu wren bounding through the grass, the loud calls of the white-fronted honey-birds in a flowering acacia, the hysterical chorus of laughing jackasses in the wooded bend of a watercourse densely lined with ti-tree, the sudden caw of a solitary crow in a box-gum, all became silent, one by one. Now and then a red kangaroo, with his beautiful ruddy tints and faint flush of dawn-rose on the under-neck, or a doe, clad in delicate steely blue, bounded near them as they passed.

They flew over the great smooth plain, while the spring wind, vivifying as a sea-breeze, blew in their faces. At times they came to a stretch of kangaroo grass, tall and rustling, swayed by the wind that came now and then running up in little fitful gusts, till the faint billows formed an exact image of the half-formed waves seen in mid-ocean in placid summer weather. The earth and sky equally had an unfamiliar boundlessness that at first lay like a weight on the spirit, and yet gradually soothed it as the imagination gathered impulse and repose from the sad magnificent horizons, unbroken by wood or hill, or the gleam of water. At rare intervals the marvellous uniformity was heightened rather than interrupted by the course of a creek whose

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abrupt banks were marked by a wavering line of box-wood or weeping myall, and sometimes dense undergrowth. The light of day and the brilliant blue of the sky were replaced by the dreamy paleness which falls on the world when the heavens are cloudless, yet hold the stars for some time out of sight, and the earth lies stretched below without limit and without shadow.

There was no cold look in the sky, no bleakness on the earth. It was noble in its vast breadth, its virgin promise of fertility—fit to be the dwelling-place of a race strong; free and generous;. careful not only for the things that advance man's material prosperity, but caring infinitely as well for all that touches the human spirit with quick recognition of its immortal kinships.

‘It is like no other scene I have ever looked at,’ said Langdale, at length breaking the silence.

‘Don't you feel you will remember it all to your dying day?’ asked Stella softly.

‘Yes; perhaps when we die we shall remember it better than ever. It is like a picture of the old classic underworld, with its pale light and its wide, homeless pastures.’

‘Oh, if it would only last for ever—the world flooded in mysterious light, the horses never tired, the horizon never visible! Why are you smiling?’

‘I would not wish it to go on for ever. I have an earth-creeping imagination that would soon pine for a local habitation—and Blättchen waiting for me inside. But how often we shall recall this ride till we meet again!’

There were cadenced cries far overhead, as if among the stars, which began to swim into sight all over the firmament, and looking upward, a long line of great birds, with dusky wings wide spread, became visible.

‘They are swans going to their nesting-places by some swamp,’ said Stella. ‘How plaintive and musical their notes are! Don't they make you understand what someone meant when he said that virtuous melodies teach virtue?’

‘And what virtue could they teach Herzblättchen that she does not possess?’

‘Handfuls! Try to believe this in time: gentleness, resignation, hope. Did you not tell me yourself, some time ago, that I was curiously lacking in hope? I always knew that a friend was more faithful than a lover!’

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‘But, Liebe, I am both; only the more I know you, the less I could bear to have you different.’

‘That is what I am always promising when my happiness makes me afraid to be different. I take refuge in the thought that I am going to be so useful and helpful—to make some lives happier that without us might be intolerably hard; to make our future home a little radiant centre. Anselm, I had rather be a cat and mew at the moon than be self-complacent and wrapped up in my own prosperity like a cocoon.’

Langdale laughed softly at this quick vehemence of speech.

‘But, Stella, how little danger there is of that! Do you want to make me believe that you have not always been helpful and loving—full of sympathy and tenderness and quick insight, ready always?’

‘Ah, but you don't know how indifferent in between— how ready at any moment to believe that after all it does not much matter. You do not know this vagrancy of temperament. You are protected by your nationalities and your love of work. That gives you an ideal of duty apart from whim and sudden changes of mood.’

‘I always knew that a friend was more faithful than a “Little-heart-leaflet.” ’

‘Don't laugh at me, Anselm. We shall recall this ride so often, as you have said: when the days are too long—when people are wearisome: and that is one of the great qualities of our race everywhere.’

Langdale laughed again, and took off his hat in acknowledgment of this wide compliment.

‘Forgive me, Liebe,’ he said, recovering his gravity; ‘but this air seems to get into one's head like champagne. But I promise not to interrupt again.’

‘Well, always while you are away—when I am bored, when I am overcome with the feeling,

‘ “Only my love's away,
I'd as lief the blue were gray’—

I shall think of this ride, and remember that I made resolutions to be better—above all, to be more patient. I can so well understand how it was with the Foolish Virgins. It is never amusing to wait long. I should have gone to

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sleep, I am sure. I should have been caught with my lamp extinguished. Do you know that seeing you so unwearied —so lost to every thought but the welfare of that poor woman during the days when she was so near death—has given me, I think, a more abiding sense of duty.’

‘Sweet St. Charity! how divinely serious your face is just now—heroic in its earnestness!’

‘My heroic moods are exotics; the wings of my soul are not full-grown, and it takes but very short flights; it comes nestling back to earth so quickly; it will follow in the wake of your vessel all the way; you may not see it, but it will be there—especially at dawn. Leave your cabin window open; for it is only the spirit of a dead soul that can go through cracks and bars of iron and glass.’

‘And will your beloved little soul come and lay a kiss on my face?’

‘No. It is not the vocation of a soul to kiss.’

‘Nor even to whisper those delicious little niaiseries that make me so happy? Cruel little soul! Why, then, will it come all that long way?’

‘To get into your waistcoat pocket with your watch, and count how fast time flies.’

It was past nine o'clock when they returned to the Peeloo station. The host and Courtland lingered at the stable after they dismounted.

Langdale and Stella bade each other farewell on the wide veranda covered in with passion-flowers and a luxuriant Queensland bignonia.

Langdale had to leave by daybreak, as he was anxious about one of the patients he visited that day—a splitter living among the great tiers of peppermint eucalyptus that lay behind the Messmate Ranges—a man who had been injured by a falling tree. Stella was very brave, and kept a smiling face to the last. Then she went in and chatted for awhile with the lady of the house, while the men smoked on the veranda. She had gone to her own room before they came in.